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Scandalous French Actresses and the Tabloid Press in the 18th Century

Saturday, June 8, 2024 - 16:43

I've decided to power through my list of reading for my "actresses and the stage" episode of the tropes series. Maybe I can get it together for the August podcast so you'll have something nice and chewy while I'm off gallivanting around the UK.

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Cheek, Pamela. 1998. "The 'Mémoires secrets' and the Actress: Tribadism, Performance, and Property", in Jeremy D. Popkin and Bernadette Fort (eds), The "Mémoires secrets" and the Culture of Publicity in Eighteenth-Century France, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation.

Despite the prominence of the word “tribadism” in the article title, it has only a small focus on this topic. The overall focus is on the public reputations and images of actresses in late 18th century French (especially Parisian) society, and particularly how those reputations and images had political overtones. Prominent actresses participated in a public economy of “pop culture” that would be familiar to people today, including the availability of souveniers and being the focus of gossip rags. Actresses were viewed as public “sexual property” in many ways, assumed to be licentious and unable to escape the requirement that they be the mistress of some prominent man or other.

Thus they were both a subject of fascination as well as being condemned as a symbol of immorality. They inhabited a liminal space, mixing with those of rank and wealth and free not only of traditional patriarchal control (whether of father or husband) but of ordinary restrictions over women’s sexual and economic autonomy. On the other hand, they were constantly scrutinized by the police and subject to legal control of their behavior, as well as being excluded from religious and social rituals. In essence, they fell entirely outside civic structures. In exchange, they received adulation for their stage talents and had significant agency in controlling the conditions of their work.

One continuing theme in accusations of immorality was that actresses (either in general, or by specific accusation) were “tribades” – a term which had a clearly understood meaning, per a dictionary of 1765, as a “femme qui a de la passion pour une autre femme” (a woman who has a passion for another woman). Prominent actress Mademoiselle Raucourt shows up regularly by name in such accusations, forming a curious contrast with the noble and virtuous characters she played on the stage.

(The article takes a deep dive into the implications of how actresses playing royal characters created an opportunity for critique and commentary on the actual royalty, while maintaining a sort of plausible deniable for the critics, but I’m not going to go into this aspect.)

The association of actresses with lesbianism also intersected their association with prostitution and pornography. Raucourt, as mentioned previously, was a popular target for this theme and stories circulated that she lead a “sect” of “tribades” or “anandrynes” [lit. “without men”]. (The same scandal sheets that spread rumors about the sex lives of actresses turned similar (lesbian) accusations on Queen Marie Antoinette.) This association had the dual functions of providing titillation and disapproval of women who controlled their own sexuality. One publication associated Roucourt and other actreresses with a secret society known as the “Loge de Lesbos” (lodge of Lesbos, suggesting parallels with masonic lodges). The pornographic literature that created the image of the “Anandrine sect” regularly returned to the trope of lesbianism as a standard phase in the sexual initiation of young women. When Roucourt fled Paris in 1778 to escape imprisonment for debt, the tabloids claimed that she and her lover Mademoiselle Souck were instead condemned for sexual crimes.

The motif of lesbianism could also be used in the tabloids for comic purposes, to mock men (or specific men) with the specter of being bested in bed by a female rival, when they find their prospective mistresses already occupied and satisfied by an actress. The use on stage of crossdressing as a plot motif plays into this comic approach, creating humor based on mistaken identities, sexual deception, and excuses to create homoerotic encounters. Female cross-dressing roles can be viewed as primarily for male consumption: exposing the shape of the actresses body, presenting f/f eroticism for a male audience, etc. but the purpose and function cannot be viewed this simply.

In essential ways, the actress’s agency places her in a socially “masculine” role, even as she is being turned into a sexual commodity, and this in turn allows her to slip between the roles of commodity and consumer.

Despite the hostility towards Raucourt during the revolution, both as a royalist and a symbol of immorality, she survived to become a director of the French theater in Italy under Napoleon and retired somewhat peacefully with a female companion, engaging in spats with neighboring landowners and participating in a local botanical academy. When she died, although her career as an actress led the church to forbid her burial, popular sentiment overturned this decision and she given a burial mass.



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